(New York, NY: Twelve Publishers, 2011)
Since the dawn of man, humans have always enjoyed a good monkey story. The Monkey King of Chinese mythology is sort of a super monkey, who cast spells, is an expert at wielding his compliant rod, or staff, and who can leap something like 30,000 miles in one awesome somersault. Even today, we go ape for primates. The 1998 film Mighty Joe Young reintroduced the world to 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, a gigantic freak gorilla. We may not have dished out nine dollars to see the movie (nor did we rent it for five), but the fact that it exists makes us feel better.
Benjamin Hale’s frisky first book, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, details the rise and fall of the world’s first speaking chimpanzee. The rise, of course, is that Bruno Littlemore, chimp extraordinaire, learns to speak. In fact, he doesn’t just learn to speak; he becomes more erudite and elitist than most humans. Think Harold Bloom with baser instincts and a higher passion for peaches. Bruno’s narrative isn’t the simple, direct language you’d expect from a talking monkey—this is lyrical play, an anti-humble Humbert Humbert handling: “With some prodding I have finally decided to give this undeserving and spiritually diseased world the generous gift of my memoirs.” And it is generous. The chimp’s tale is close to six hundred pages. Why does Bruno talk so much? Because now he can.
Bruno’s excitement for language is clearly aligned to Nabokov’s, whose English as a Third Language worked out fairly well. In a book where the word “amanuensis” is on page one, there is no surprise that you are going beyond Hands, Hands, Fingers, Thumb, in which millions of monkeys drum on drums. Bruno has to pull himself, with the help of a lovely scientist, out of the primitive gesturing of his relatives, whose conversations consist of “signifiers with amoebic and inconstant sets of signifieds depending entirely upon the ephemeral context of the immediately present moment.” Indeed. This is not to say that there isn’t a good lot of monkey talk. As Bruno works his way into the speaking world, an early conversation goes something like:
“Eeetoo eeteetoo amammmmmmnnnnn oot oot oot.”
“Havar voo voy!”
“Rannanakka rannakka oit oit oit!”
“Uffa uffa uffa eeeeeeeeeeagghhht.”
“Yiikikikikikikikikiki eeeeeite eeeeeite!”
“Oo-woo oo-woo oooooo reagh reagh YEAAAAGGHHH!”
and so on. But English does come, and Bruno masters it. In fact, he becomes a creative genius, painting, putting on Shakespeare, turning into somewhat of a renaissance ape. The world is his oyster as he becomes more human.
But there is the fall. Bruno kills someone. The book is purportedly dictated from a primate research facility. Punishment is coming. But until then, he must, as Nabokov would say, get rid of this story. One of the book’s best elements is its daring to tackle the big monkey/human issues. There’s the initial species-ism—I now feel ashamed that I can’t tell a monkey and a chimpanzee apart—in which the world is initially fascinated then disturbed by Bruno. There’s interspecies relations (not sure what to call this; jungle fever is taken) and there’s the inevitable shift in Bruno’s appearance, a Michael Jackson-like grotesque attempt at plastic surgery, all in a depth charge of lingo-etceterata.
In an afterward in 1956, Nabokov explained the birth of Lolita: “the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” If the roots of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore didn’t begin here, well, I’d be a monkey’s uncle. Because Bruno, like Humbert, is all passion. “I climbed down from that tree to spend the rest of my life running from the yawning darkness of animal terror toward the light of fire stolen from the gods, and like you I remain in a state of constant pursuit, never quite escaping the darkness nor ever reaching the light.”
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, like other mammoth firsties of this sort (The Broom of the System, Catch-22, A Confederacy of Dunces), is that fresh bit of young writing where the fun is in the baroque, in the cacophony, in the love of language. The result is a fantastic book that sits on the shoulders of giants, grooming, perhaps, a genuine pleasure for people who love books.
| | |
J.D. Reid’s review of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore first appeared in TLR’s Spring 2011 issue, Emo, Meet Hole.